Old enemy wants 'Terror' back

Everyone is asking why the ANC sacked South Africa's most popular provincial premier, Mary Braid finds in Bloemfontein

Two years ago, Eddie von Maltitz, an Orange Free State farmer, was preparing for war. With the approach of South Africa's first democratic elections, it seemed to him that the "black peril" had finally crept up through his fields and was now on his stoep.

His great-grandfather, a 19th-century Voortrekker, had not tamed the South African interior for it to be surrendered without a fight. So Eddie was extra busy on the farm, stockpiling food, recruiting neighbours to his fledgling paramilitary group, Resistance Against Communism, and training the latest von Maltitz generation - his teenage son and daughter - to kill the usurpers.

At the time, civil war was a real possibility, but the forecast bloodbath never happened. Today, not only is Mr von Maltitz at grudging peace with the enemy, he is in mourning for Patrick "Terror" Lekota, the Free State's first black premier, recently removed from office by the ANC national leadership along with his cabinet. Despite widespread protests, the ANC is about to announce a replacement.

Mr Lekota, tipped as a future president, has committed no crime. In fact he has cracked one of the country's hardest nuts by winning over Mr von Maltitz and the entire Boer farming fraternity in the Afrikaners' heartland. His removal, after months of fighting within the provincial ANC and allegations of corruption by Mr Lekota against rival comrades, has had the rare effect of uniting blacks and whites. In the state capital, Bloemfontein, the man in the street, of whatever colour, is asking: why did the ANC leadership notback the man recently voted most popular premier in the country, especially when he was achieving miracles?

"It's disgusting the way he has been treated," said Mr von Maltitz. "'Terror' is approachable and honest, and he was doing a good job." The ANC - which has banned Free State members from talking to the media, ignored pleas for Mr Lekota's reinstatement, and frozen its rank and file out of the selection of a new premier - has been accused of acting like the National Party government "It's like the bad old days all over again," said one member, too afraid to give his name.

Mr Lekota was a leading light in the United Democratic Front and spent 13 years on Robben Island for "terrorist" crimes, but he earned his nickname on the football field. He might seem an unlikely friend of the Boer farmer, but he is a passionate believer in reconciliation. He learnt that on Robben Island, from Nelson Mandela, who is credited with his recruitment from the racially separatist Pan Africanist Congress.

Like Mr Mandela, Mr Lekota speaks excellent Afrikaans. From the moment he took up residence in the Free State premier's grand residence he was out at agricultural shows, slapping white backs and chewing the fat about livestock and maize prices. In those dizzy post-apartheid months, President Mandela charmed Afrikaners by having tea with the 92-year-old widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid; "Terror", meanwhile, was inviting Mr von Maltitz to his birthday party. The Afrikaner refused at first, but was eventually there to blow out the candles.

Even at the testiest times Mr Lekota somehow won the die-hards over. Last year an angry delegation of the Volk turned up at his office to protest at his removal of a statue of Verwoerd. After a chat, everyone emerged smiling, though the premier made it clear that the statue was never coming back.

"He is a true nation-builder," said Moses Moko, local leader of the national civil rights group, Sanco, who is pressing for his reinstatement. Everyone supported Mr Lekota's conciliatory attitude, he said, but Johan Neethling, executive member of the Free State Agricultural Union, was not so sure, saying: "His approach may have had something to do with his removal." ANC national officials insist that Mr Lekota and some of his opponents were "redeployed" because they could not resolve their differences. Voters and ANC members remain unconvinced.

In a dark corner of a Bloemfontein bar, a nervous ANC activist, convinced he is being followed, talked of the frustration and fear within the rank and file. He believes his phone may be tapped, as do other ANC members. After years in the struggle - including spells in jail - he smiles at the irony of his suspicion that his comrades may be spying on him.

The activist linked Mr Lekota's removal to continuing corruption investigations, but the former premier's cardinal sin was to wash the ANC's dirty linen in public. "Party unity is being put before everything else," he says. "That might have been vital for a freedom movement, but it's wrong for a political party in a democracy."

Others suspect "Terror" is the victimof ambition at much higher levels. They point out that he is just the latest popular ANC figure to be damaged by political scandal. The Gauteng premier, Tokyo Sexwale, also a likely presidential candidate, was recently involved in a bitter public row with the deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, the man President Mandela has anointed as his successor, over claims that Mr Mbeki secretly ordered security police to investigate rumours of corruption concerning Mr Sexwale.

A few months ago, a former minister, Bantu Holomisa, was expelled from the party after claiming that senior ANC figures accepted bribes and favours from the casino magnate, Sol Kerzner, and that Mr Kerzner paid for Mr Mbeki's birthday party. The deputy president denied the allegation.

Bloemfontein is seething with conspiracy theories, and the ANC has only itself to blame. Its attempt to tighten central control at the expense of grassroots opinion and democratic process, has stifled debate and driven dissent underground. That no one will speak on the record is unsurprising: they know how cold it is out there.

"The whole business stinks," says the ANC man in the bar. "But we have seen what happens to people who speak out. Look at Holomisa now." A few months ago, thousands of ANC members defied the party to attend Mr Holomisa's rallies, but numbers have dropped off: when he turned up in Bloemfontein last week to support Mr Lekota, only 150 came to listen. "Terror" was careful to distance himself from Mr Holomisa, telling his supporters to accept the party's decision. The normally ebullient politican sounded a broken man as he refused an interview. "I am loyal to the party," he said. "It has been my life."

The Lekota saga calls into question the ANC's commitment to democracy and transparent government. Dalina Massgrave, founder of Crossroads, a Free State group "formed to protect our young democracy", snorts at this week's celebrations of the new South African constitution. "In the Free State we are seeing the fist of freedom become the fist of iron," she says. "We don't want that for South Africa. We had enough of that before."

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